Policing Poverty: An Interview with Laura-Lin of the Surrey Strip

Interview by Dave Diewert and Lenée Son
Written by Isabel Krupp and Zoe Luba

Poor and Indigenous people are surveilled, controlled, and punished by the Canadian state. Not only are we policed by officers in uniform, who represent the “hard” repressive power of the state, but our lives are also controlled by social agencies – social workers, supportive housing, shelters, and other institutions – which amount to “soft” forms of criminalization and policing. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Laura-Lin, a former resident of the heavily policed homeless camp known as the 135A Surrey Strip. In this interview, Laura-Lin speaks candidly about the harsh realities of life under hard and soft power on the Strip. She also recounts acts of resistance and solidarity, which offer hope for a better world.

The Shelter System as a Site of Social Control

Shelter workers actively create divisions between those in shelters and those living on the Strip. Laura-Lin describes attempts by the shelter system to destroy relationships between sheltered and unsheltered homeless people.

What was it like moving from the Surrey Strip to the shelter?

LL: It was very uncomfortable. After being in a tent for almost two years, then having a bed, having a shower – the first shower I had, I just sat there and cried.

But I didn’t want to leave the Strip, to tell you the truth. I didn’t want to leave my uncle. People that are in the shelter aren’t allowed to go down to the Strip. That’s the rule.

Who is policing that?

LL: You could get caught by one of the workers. But they can’t stop me from seeing my uncle – that’s my family. I went to the Strip on my birthday and one of the workers saw me. I said, “It’s my birthday. This is the only family I have.” They can’t kick me out of the shelter because I wanted to come see my uncle on my birthday. That’s not fair.

Is that the punishment if they catch you on the Strip?

LL: You get two warnings and on the third, you’re out.

What is the reasoning for that – why doesn’t the shelter want folks to visit the Strip?

LL: It’s because in the shelter, you’re supposed to be moving up, right? You’re moving up from being homeless – from being in a tent or an abandoned house. They want you to move forward and not move backwards. They want you to do good. They don’t want the “bad people” to influence you.

Child Apprehension as a Form of Colonial Violence

The Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) is responsible for child apprehension in Canada, which parallels the residential school system. There are more Indigenous children in care today than at the height of residential schools. Indigenous children are 7% of all children in Canada, but are 48% of children in foster care. MCFD is a branch of “hard” power, which Laura-Lin experiences as disciplining her for her poverty by taking and keeping her kids away from her.

LL: I didn’t even get a chance with my kids. I gave my kids to my mom because I thought I was doing what was best for them. At that time, their dad put a hole in my window. It was that really, really dry winter we had when nobody could breathe or anything – in 2010, I think – and my landlord went to India for three months. So, I had to give my kids to my mom because it was too cold – I couldn’t have the kids in the house. My hot water tank blew up, I had no hot water, no heat, a hole in my window, you know?

Was there any effort made to reconnect you with your children?

LL: I never, never, never lost touch with my kids. Never. I always stayed in contact with them. Every birthday, Christmas, Easter. I’ve never once just walked out of their lives.

Did the Ministry ever try to see if it was possible for you to have them back? Or if you wanted them back?

LL: Of course I wanted them [but the Ministry] wouldn’t call me back. I left messages with the Ministry for years. For year and years and years. I got no phone call. That’s not fair. Even the foster mom said, I don’t know why they’re doing this to you. I didn’t get a chance.

What happened to them, the kids?

LL: They’re with the same foster mom still. She has primary residence and custody. But she’s all the way in Calgary. In that area, I didn’t have any say. I didn’t have a vote.

Why is that – why didn’t they give you a say?

LL: Because I don’t have a house. I can’t afford a house on normal income assistance.

Really, it was because of poverty that meant there was no chance of you having the kids.

LL: Yeah. One of the workers even said to me and my mom, right to our faces, as she laughed, “I’ll make sure that Laura-Lin never has these children” [as though] I was a horrible person. How am I horrible? These workers, they don’t get it. Nobody wanted to listen to me. Nobody gave me a shot. What did I do wrong? Nothing. It’s not fair because my kids lost out. And I beat myself up everyday because of it.

You clearly care about your kids.

LL: Yeah, I do. They are what keeps me going. But it’s also eating me alive. It’s killing me.

Do you feel like a lack of housing contributes to your depression?

LL: Yeah, it does. Because the home is where the heart is, right? When you have a home, you feel comfortable and you feel good about yourself. Then you want to work towards something. Without that, there’s nothing.

Supporting Each Other to Resist State Neglect

The Surrey Strip is not a tent city; it is more like an open-air prison, controlled and surveilled by a constant police presence. Police attempt to divide and destroy those who live there. But they remain unsuccessful. Strip residents depend on community bonds, which cannot be broken by cops, by-law officers, or the social workers who collude with these coercive forces.

LL: I’ve been on the Strip since 2016. It wasn’t so bad in the beginning, but once it started to get really cold, it got harder and harder. Me, Kim, and Dwayne – we stuck together like a team, like a family. I slept a lot that winter because it was so cold. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to turn over to light my candle. It was me – just me – in a five-man tent. Colby Paulson actually saved my life a couple of times.

How so?

LL: He came into my tent and I kind of grunted. He said, “Are you dope sick?” I guess I was really cold – I was blue. I was dope sick and freezing. He said, “How long have you been in here?” I said, “Three days.” I couldn’t move it. It was so cold, I didn’t want to move. So, he said, “Move over. Take your jacket off.” He got in there and warmed up right beside me. Instant body heat. I went from freezing cold to cooking hot. He did that several times that winter. He saved my life.

Living on the Strip means finding ways to survive state neglect, intense police surveillance, and social worker-enforced containment. The wider public holds cops and social workers on pedestals, glorifying them and further entrenching their power to inflict violence. This makes it difficult to survive on the Strip, let alone build the political power needed to resist capitalism and the colonial state. As Laura-Lin describes, community bonds are key to survival. While survival alone doesn’t quite constitute political resistance, people must survive today in order to resist tomorrow. We can see the germs of collective resistance and power in Laura-Lin’s accounts of solidarity among residents of the Surrey Strip.

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